Tuesday, 20 December 2016

I, Davros 1.4: Guilt by Scott Alan Woodard (December 2006)

I was, to put it mildly, no fan of Scott Alan Woodard’s Absolution, but fortunately Guilt, which wraps up the I, Davros saga, is free of that story’s worst tendencies. There’s the odd glitch: the Muto stuff isn’t as strong as the rest of it (it doesn’t help that Nicholas Briggs is rather phoning it in as Baran), but by and large this is a strong ending to a terrific miniseries: one of the most inventive and successful productions BF have given us, and certainly the most successful spin-off I’ve come across. Guilt takes place shortly before Genesis of the Daleks, and already the Skaro of Innocence feels like an age ago; the atmosphere in this final instalment feels much closer to the 1975 TV story: a bleak wasteland, mutants, explosions, “rels”, Davros’ familiar voice… and, of course, the presence of the magnificent Peter Miles as Davros’ right-hand man Nyder. It’s really rather hard to overstate - phenomenal though Michael Wisher is as Davros - how much of the success of Genesis of the Daleks revolves around Miles’ terrific performance. He’s pretty good here, too, once you get over the suspension of disbelief at the older actor playing the younger and more junior iteration of his character, of course (I don’t quite agree with Gary Russell that his voice hasn’t aged a day, though he does still recapture much of its former flavour: “I never sleep well, not if I wish to survive the night” is his best line, while his fear as the Dalek first emerges is also terribly effective). Opening by having Davros kidnapped by the Thals, then needing to be rescued by Nyder, is a gutsy move, but it pays off in terms of raising the stakes; his first actual meeting with Davros is a terrific scene, as we hear the inklings of that respect that will grow between them, respect that will eventually become absolute trust. It is only through gaining Nyder’s trust that Davros is able to put his plan into action, after all. The creation of the Daleks is as much something for which we should hold Nyder accountable (or “guilty”, if you like) as it is Davros.

Praising Terry Molloy is getting so obvious as to be repetitive, but he really is extraordinary. The man simply inhabits the role of Davros; whether he’s rasping, calling for help after an explosion, dreaming of his mother offering him tea, listening to bombastic, Wagnerian music, or mid-triumphant rant, Molloy delivers the goods. One of the great successes of I, Davros has been in showing Davros at his most intellectual; freed from the necessary restrictions of a Doctor Who plot, in which he has to have some hare-brained scheme or other, the scriptwriters have been able to present him as a visionary, somebody who sees the way the wind is blowing and makes his terrifying yet necessary adjustments accordingly. It’s not that Davros is humanised, exactly. But listening to this series inevitably allows us a greater understanding of who he is, why he acts as he does, and where he comes from or behaves in any given situation. He is in many respects far more interesting than the Master, or other similar arch-enemies of the Doctor’s, in that his character has been relatively consistently written and performed (of the four actors to play Davros, I personally think only Gooderson is anything less than brilliant), and his back-story and motivations relatively well fleshed-out. Most villains do not get anything like the same level of character moment as Davros musing over the ancient Dal book he used to read as a child (the Dal book which gives him the word ‘Dal-ek’, and what a perversely thrilling moment it is to hear Davros first say both that word and, later, “exterminate”).

The actual ‘genesis’ of the Daleks has of course already been shown, but I, Davros has something of the same qualities of Spare Parts in that it takes a foregone conclusion and shows the inevitable yet agonising descent towards that point we know must arrive, and that it does so with an earnestness that really sells the apocalyptic horror. Echoing Spare Parts, too, is the irony of the Daleks’ inception; just as it was the Doctor’s liberal, humane mind that seemed to act as the template for the Cybermen’s inhumanity, so too the genetic makeup of a Thal acts as the template for the creatures that were meant to preserve the “purity of the Kaled race”. Both species are born as the result of a horrifying, idealistic utopianism that seeks to save the desperate (“men will become as gods!” Davros says exultantly), yet freely contradict and go against their own ideals when necessary (the moment Davros admires the Thal spy’s “courage”, calling it “fascinating”, you can already hear the cogs turning in his mind as he wonders how he might use this individual to his advantage). Davros here is nearly a religious zealot, as lines like “It is purgatory, but we must make it paradise!” make all too clear - so convinced by the rightness of his own thoughts that he is happy to exterminate the Council of Twelve when they do not ratify his ideas. Traditionally I’ve always thought the Cybermen were scarier, certainly in terms of ‘body horror’, than the Daleks, but Guilt goes some way to rectifying the balance by showing us the Daleks’ horrific origins - specifically Davros’ fascistic emphasis on children and the degree to which he considers the Daleks his children. There’s a deeply disturbing scene here in which Davros enters the laboratory of his mutations and says “hello, my children”, addressing them with cooing baby-talk. I almost got an ‘Anakin & the younglings’ vibe from this, except it’s much scarier: Davros as twisted God and Parent, rather than he who massacres the next generation. While we’re doing comparisons with Spare Parts, the very end of Guilt has the same iconic quality as “Doctorman Allen… we begin again!” - Frankenstein first meets his monster, recognises him as its creator as a human baby recognises its mother, and it lives and breathes and speaks; Nick Briggs doesn’t appear as a Dalek for long here, but even in two lines (“Davros!” and “I am alive!”) he’ll send a shiver down your spine.

There’s a case this is even better than Spare Parts. At its best, most horrific look at reproductive futurism it rivals Children of Earth. On Twitter Gary Russell described I, Davros as “one of my proudest moments”. I can see why; ten years old this month, it’s an easy ten out of ten.

Other things:
Fun turn from Lisa Bowerman as the Thal colonel, Murash.
A High Councillor called Terrant? This really is by a Terry Nation fanboy, isn’t it?!
It’s a silly thing, but I don’t like that they serve “tea” on Skaro. It just makes the universe feel a bit smaller.
“Supremo. How interesting that your presence makes my subconscious conjure up my mother. I wonder why that is.”
“It has been a long time since I felt clean linen against my skin, or a pillow against my head.”
“Childbirth has become one of our greatest gambles, and sadly the odds are no longer in our favour.”
“We may not see it in our children, or even our children’s children, but sooner rather than later, the changes will be extreme.”
Of course Davros would be reading the chapter on the ‘ascent of Man’; it sounds appropriately Nietzschean.
“There is no point in dwelling on what has happened. That was the past. Idyllic memories now relegated to legend. I am an old man, but something inside tells me that my life is truly about to begin, and something so great and so important lies just on the horizon. I find myself both excited and terrified…that is our world out there, beyond the dome of blast-proof glass. A chemical soup for a sky above, and a scarred, radioactive wasteland below. It is purgatory, but we must make it paradise!”
Davros’ password is “CALCULA” and Baran surmises it’s quasi-Oedipal - my suspicions are vindicated.
“Bring her in here. The children of Davros are hungry. If she wakens to realise how pleased her son is to see his mother, she may have a change of heart…”
The behind-the-scenes disc is a good listen, letting us hear not just from Molloy but also David Gooderson and Michael Wisher’s son Andrew (who played Reston in Purity). The individual writers all chip in with their two penn’orth as well as drawing the I, Claudius comparisons.

Next: Sarah Jane Smith 1.1: Comeback by Terrance Dicks.

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